Do you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by tasks that seem easy to other people? Does it take you a lot of energy to get out of bed or to take a shower?
If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, know you are not lazy, and you are not alone. For people who have chronic mental health and/or health conditions, each day and the tasks required of you each day can be draining.
What is Spoon Theory?
Spoon theory is a helpful metaphor (Miserandino, 2023) that is used to describe your daily allowance of available energy. When you are dealing with invisible health conditions, such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, etc., much of your time and energy can be focused on managing physical pain, emotional pain, intrusive thoughts, and/or distressing memories. The internal struggle is very real even if others do not see or understand it.
Spoons are a mental representation of our energy supply, and each necessary task requires a payment of spoons. For example, getting out of bed, taking a shower, and preparing a meal may cost us one spoon per task. If on any given day we have 10 spoons, we now have 7 left to use after those tasks. On some days, like when we do not get enough sleep, we start off with fewer spoons. With limited energy, we are depleted more quickly.
In an ideal world, we would rest when we have used up all our spoons. Unfortunately, for many of us, we end up using all our spoons and then have to borrow spoons from the next day to keep going. This constant borrowing means we are pushing ourselves past our limit and unable to restore our energy reserves.
To break free from this fatiguing cycle, we can benefit from knowing how many spoons we have on any given day (especially spoon-limited days) to reduce our commitments to match our available spoons and when possible to replenish our spoons.
There are certain times when we have fewer spoons, and our spoons are more easily depleted. The following are examples:
An illness flareup
Recent or current depressive episode
Some people experience seasonal depression (you can read more here)
Certain holidays can be difficult
A recent life change contributing to elevated distress
Recent death of a loved one
Ending of a relationship or friendship
Untreated trauma and/or exposure to triggers
Experiencing chronic stress
Burnout from work, parenting, caregiving, etc.
How to Maintain and Replenish Spoons
Assessing each day how many spoons we have, being mindful of how we are using our spoons, and intentionally replenishing our spoons can offer us more rest as well as improve our quality of life. Below are general suggestions:
Reduce self-expectations by being realistic of what is doable
Rather than tackling your entire to do list, maybe you can focus on one thing at a time
Try to catch yourself when you compare yourself to others
Validate your struggles by being kinder to yourself
You can read more about self-compassion practices (i.e., acknowledging pain, reducing judgmental thoughts, etc.) by clicking here
Set boundaries with others, including what you can commit to and what you cannot
Schedule sufficient time for rest and sleep
Set aside wind-down time in your daily routine
Block off chunks of time in your schedule to do the things you want to do
Take breaks as to not overwhelm yourself
Go for a walk
Take some deep breaths
Know you don’t have to do everything yourself
You can reach out to friends, family, and/or health care providers
Through checking in with yourself, you gain clarity on your own capacity each day. Our energy is limited especially as we live day-to-day with various health conditions. Our mind and bodies are connected; the more we nourish one aspect, we are also supporting the other. Your future self will thank you for the choices you make today.
If you are interested in learning how to live a more sustainable life while experiencing mental health conditions, you can reach out to us here.
Stay tuned. Our blog is "Do You Have a Minute?"
Miserandino, C. (2023). The Spoon Theory. https://butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/
Written by Susanna La, Ph.D.
Edited by Elena Duong, Psy.D.